Baltimore's oldest black graveyard going to seed Weeds, grass and neglect lay claim to Mount Auburn Cemetery's 33 acres

November 20, 1993|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

A path cuts through high weeds and tall grass at Mount Auburn Cemetery and leads to headstones simply marked "WEEKS" and "Hattie Jane Pettaway."

The two stones lie in the center of a square patch of freshly mowed grass in an oasis that contrasts sharply with the bushy trappings of nearby gravesites, identified by the names Tucker, Queens, Peters, Dorsey and Jones.

Headstones for Tucker, Queens and the others are covered by the tall grass and weeds that have overrun Mount Auburn, the city's oldest black cemetery, which has been victimized over the years by neglect, vandalism, mismanagement and illegal dumping.

Many headstones have been toppled in the 33-acre burial ground, depressions in the earth mark sites where graves have sunk and grass sprouts through cracks and potholes in the asphalt road that runs through the cemetery.

"The saddest part is coming here on Memorial Day and seeing people come out here to put flowers on the graves of their loved ones. And they would cry because they couldn't," said Marion Butler, a cemetery caretaker.

Mr. Butler said some family members have problems finding the gravesites of family members or are unable to get close to them because of the growth. He is hoping that a new effort to raise funds to restore the cemetery will eliminate those problems.

"We have a lot of people who see the conditions and don't want to be buried here," he said. "We've talked to a lot of funeral directors who don't want to bury here."

Mr. Butler works at the cemetery with Leroy E. Brown, the other caretaker. They say they are overwhelmed by the cemetery's problems.

Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, a 6th District Democrat, is leading the effort to raise about $26,000 to clean up the cemetery, which is owned by the Sharp Street United Methodist Church. The money drive also hopes to establish a fund to maintain the cemetery. The 121-year-old site once was Baltimore's only graveyard for blacks.

"You have a public official who is calling upon the community at large," said Mr. Stukes, who has sponsored a resolution in Baltimore City Council to support, in principle, the fund-raising effort.

Among those buried there are Lillie Carroll Jackson, the driving force behind desegregation battles as president of the Baltimore NAACP; Joe Gans, the first black lightweight boxing champion who compiled a 147-6 career record; and William Asbie Hawkins, the first black to run for the U.S. Senate.

Their gravesites and some others are well-maintained. Family members either send money to have caretakers cut the grass around their relatives' plots or come to the cemetery to cut the grass themselves.

In another of the 13 sections, Alfonzo L. Hudgins, 1923-1966, has a well-maintained plot along a narrow strip near one of the roads. Not too far are the weather-beaten stone of Daniel Staten, which is mostly illegible now, and one belonging to Maggie Holmes, 1892-1966, whose grave is covered by vegetation.

Mr. Brown, the other caretaker, said five people tended the graveyard when he began working there two years ago. Now, there are only two. Mr. Brown said it is impossible to use a riding mower because he would not be able to maneuver around the headstones. Therefore, he cannot cover much ground, he said. His mowing basically is limited to the sites that families pay to maintain.

Lottie W. Cole, president of the Mount Auburn Cemetery Corp., blamed the Sharp Street Church, in West Baltimore, for badly managing the cemetery. But she said she believes that the church should not bear the full responsibility for restoring the cemetery.

"Every black family I come into contact with in Baltimore has somebody in that cemetery. So to me, the lot owners have a responsibility," she said.

In the early 1980s, the church leased the property to a developer to manage and maintain it. There were mixed opinions on whether that arrangement was successful. Some of those familiar with the cemetery say its condition improved; others disagree.

The church also has tried volunteers from the state's boot camp program for nonviolent offenders, who performed cleanup work earlier this year. But Mrs. Cole complained that the quality of that work was unsatisfactory and the caretakers said there wasn't enough equipment to keep the boot campers busy.

Because of those failures, the Mount Auburn Cemetery Corp., which is a nonprofit organization, wants to hire a private contractor to do the initial cleanup work, estimated to cost $26,000.

She predicted that the cemetery would generate money on its own once restored because people seeking burial plots would find it an attractive place to send their loved ones. Now, about three burials a month, at a fee of $500 each, are done at Mount Auburn, she said.

About 48,000 bodies have been buried at the graveyard, but about one-third of the space remains unoccupied.

"Once we get it cleaned up and it looks conducive, we'll come to it," said Joseph L. Russ, a Baltimore funeral director who said he and other black undertakers plan to contribute money for the restoration.

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